Farley Keith (FARLEY JACKMASTER FUNK) was a DJ before house existed, before it had a name, when it was just a bunch of hungry kids playing disco records on Chicago’s Southside. In fact, Farley claims it was he who popularised the term ‘house’ and that his label House Records was the genre’s first (and he may well be right). Born and bred in the Windy City, Farley was a teenage soul and funk DJ, operating one deck and a microphone until he heard Kenny Jason playing on WBAI. “When I heard him mixin’ I thought: I gotta be a DJ. Kenny was a massive influence on me because I couldn’t mix Kool Aid sugar with water. I couldn’t get over how he put two records together like he did without stoppin’.”
The music Jason mixed was disco, house music’s precursor and foundation, and Farley became obsessed. “I worked for my dad at his cleaners and I used to steal money from the register to support my new drug habit, which was disco,” he says. By the time he was 18 he had a weekly residency at a club that admitted no-one under 21 and by 1981 he was on WBMX, Chicago’s biggest and most influential radio station as part of the Hot Mix 5. This quintet was brought together by station head Lee Michaels, who auditioned them by asking DJs to send in mix cassettes.
The five (Kenny ‘Jammin’’ Jason, Ralph Rosario, Scott ‘Smokin’’ Silz, Mickey ‘Mixin’’ Oliver and Farley) began broadcasting in 1981 on the Saturday Live Ain’t No Jive mix show. Their success grew so swiftly that a Friday night was added (The Friday Night Jam) and before long they were providing mixes daily. “Driving down Rush and Division [in downtown Chicago] on the weekend was like listening to one giant ghetto blaster,” remembers Michaels, “It didn’t matter what creed you were or what kind of car you had – everyone had the Saturday Night Live Ain’t No Jive show on.”
It made stars of all five of the DJs and turned them into wealthy men. Even though much of the foundation of house music is credited to Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles, the reach of the Hot Mix 5 went way beyond the relatively small gay clubs in which the pair a meeting with another DJ, Leonard ‘Remix’ Rroy in 1983: “Leonard said to me, ‘You know, Farley, I don’t like playing all that other shit. I like playing house music.’ I thought, ‘What a wonderful name to call the music that I play.’ So I went on the radio and announced to the whole city that from now on all the music I play is ‘house’ music. This is how the city coined the phrase ‘house’.”
What tipped Chicago over from a city of musical consumers into producers were a few early pioneers – most important among them was the effervescent Jesse Saunders, whose own label Jes Say was an outlet for his early new wave-ish releases. The quantum leap was his track ‘On & On’, widely recognised as the first house record (itself a copy of a bootleg produced by Mach that Saunders used to play in his sets). Built around the bassline from Lipps Inc’s ‘Funkytown’, there’s little that’s big or clever about it, but that’s what provided the impetus for others to emulate. “Jesse made everybody want to go and get a drum machine and start making records, because, Jesse’s shit wasn’t that good,” chuckles Marshall Jefferson.
“It made it more accessible. Everybody said: ‘Fuck! I could do better operated, and it was through radio that many discovered the Italo-disco sound that was a staple of the Hot Mix 5 as it led inexorably into house. Farley recalls than that!’” Farley concurs: “He took me to the studio one time and I saw what he did and I said, ‘I’ll see you later!’ As soon as everybody saw what to do we all lost our minds and was tryin’ to make house music, man. It was over.”
Armed with cheap drum machines, makeshift studios and disco records for ‘inspiration’, the youth of Chicago set to work. The modus operandi was simple: get a four-to-the-floor kick-drum and steal a bassline from somewhere, while shouting a bit on top of it all. Hey presto: ‘Aw Shucks’, the first release by Farley Keith, aka Jackmaster Funk. “Steve Hurley played the bassline, which we stole from ‘Beat Street’ by Sharon Redd,” he admits. “Just about every early house record was a bite off some old disco record. We just replayed it and put a kick drum under it”. “Disco on a budget” is how West End’s Mel Cheren once described the genre.
Yet from such unpromising beginnings came great riches. ‘Jack Your Body’ by Farley flatmate Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley used the bassline from First Choice’s ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’ and gave house music its first No 1 in the UK in January 1987. More controversial was the Farley Jackmaster Funk version of Isaac Hayes’ ‘I Can’t Turn Around’, a staple track in many Chicago DJs’ boxes including Farley and Steve Hurley. In an interview he gave to Jonathan Fleming, Hurley stated: “Before I could get my cover version of ‘I Can’t Turn Around’ out, Farley went and made his own version which he based on my arrangement. We were roommates and he got hold of my four-track recording of it, took my version and just altered it a little bit to make his own.”
When I quiz Farley about this, he is unrepentant. “We were both influenced by the Isaac Hayes record. We were both playin’ it. Now he was more of a musician than me as he could play the notes, whereas I had to call a keyboard player in. I wasn’t influenced by Steve Hurley, I was influenced by the same music. So I decided to make ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’. I don’t feel bad because every record we made in the early days of Chicago was a knock-off of somebody else’s songs. I can’t steal something from Steve when the song belonged to Isaac Hayes.”
Farley’s version was licensed by Pete sinnersdjs. com for the 30 Years Of House Tour Tong to London Records and became the first house record to chart in the UK, reaching
There’s something refreshingly honest about the way in which Farley confesses his occasional transgressions. Chicago’s a notoriously competitive place, after all, and a hard-nosed DJ regarded as number one in the city sometimes had to stack the odds in his own favour to stay on top of the pile. Few DJs offer such a tarnished version of themselves for public consumption in the media. It makes him a very likeable character.
But like most of the Chicago pioneers, Farley was also a victim of the sharp practices which were endemic in the city. His early releases were often bootlegged by the pressing plant. He made deals with some now legendary early labels, which also ended unhappily. Everyone who made a record in Chicago has a story to tell, and most of them ended in tears. “I’m not a businessman,” he says. “We made the music purely to have something different to play in the clubs; we didn’t know about the business.”
Yet here we are, 30 years down the line – with grandkids in tow – and house’s own version of the rock’n’roll hall of fame (Farley and cohorts will begin work on a Museum Of House Music in Chicago this year). Over the past 10 years or so, the city of his birth has finally started to acknowledge the contribution these DJs gave to the American Midwest.
This year several streets will be rechristened in the city, including Farley Jackmaster Funk Boulevard, Hot Mix 5 Way and House Records Way, and Farley’s about to embark on a mammoth 30th anniversary of house music tour, which alights in London at Clockwork Orange on March 21. As one of his classic early tunes stated: ‘Farley Knows House’. There are pretenders to the throne, but there’s only one Jackmaster. And his name is Farley Keith.